Four Myths About Mass Spec That First Responders Should Know

By John Kenneweg

As today’s threat landscape continues to evolve and become more complex, the need for new, innovative technologies has only increased. First responders rely heavily on their toolkits to identify threats in the field with speed and confidence, making them a critical component of every mission.

In the early 2000s, the first handheld analytical tools for chemical identification were introduced. These tools not only changed the way in which chemicals were analyzed in the field; they also redefined the capabilities of the nontechnical user.

Capability gaps still exist, however, as some techniques have been slower to join the handheld revolution. For example, until recently, mass spec, a powerful chemical analysis technique, had yet to transition into a true handheld tool. Person-portable instruments that can operate downrange have been introduced, enabling some mass spec analysis in the field. However, because of size, weight, and complexity, along with ownership costs, widespread adoption was still limited.

Despite recent breakthroughs in mass spec, first responders have remained weary of its application, holding fast to the belief that it is both highly complicated and requires extensive “care and feeding.” While this idea is not entirely off base, the recent introduction of a new form of mass spec, high-pressure mass spectrometryTM (HPMS), has shattered these myths, allowing first responders to leverage the powerful capabilities of mass spec at the push of a button.

Let’s take a look at four major myths that exist in the industry to further understand how and why the aforementioned HPMS is debunking these notions as they relate to size, ease of use, cost, and toolkit capabilities.

Myth #1: Mass spectrometers are so big that we are going to need a mobile lab. It is true that traditional mass spectrometers are large, cumbersome instruments. The introduction of the portable mass spec systems was an undeniable step forward; however, today’s “luggable” instruments remain large, complex, and fragile, resulting in limited field deployment.

HPMS breaks all myths associated with the size of mass spectrometers, as it allows for several key components of the instrument to be miniaturized. It also removes the need for large, bulky vacuum pumps that limit conventional mass spec approaches. As a result, current HPMS tools weigh less than 2 kg (4.4 pounds) and are battery-powered for continuous operation in the field. Compared with conventional mass spectrometers, HPMS tools are 70 times lighter and consume about 100 times less power. For first responders, this means immediate answers in the field at the push of a button. Gone are the days of sending samples back to the centralized lab for testing.

Myth #2: Mass spec can only be performed by scientists and Ph.Ds. Traditional mass spectrometers are mostly confined to central laboratories. As such, first responders have held only one particular vision about who can operate the instruments: Ph.D.s in white lab coats. Again, this assumption is not entirely unfounded. Conventional mass spectrometers, those found in the centralized lab and their field-deployed “luggable” counterparts, are extremely complex and require extensive training to operate. Within a centralized lab setting, there is usually one individual with a Ph.D. who has been trained to run, interpret, and maintain the instrument-that’s how complex they are to operate.

Unlike conventional mass spec instruments, HPMS tools are simple to use. The tools require minimal training, meaning that responders can begin field use after just a few hours of basic training. First responders also benefit from the process and efficiency of the tool, with limited time spent on the introduction and run of a sample. Any first responder who has been trained on the tool can interpret results, and actionable insight and intelligence can be achieved without a Ph.D. on scene.

Myth #3: Mass spec instruments are expensive. The truth of the matter is, yes, traditional mass spectrometers designed for safety and security applications are expensive. Not only are the instruments themselves expensive, but the training and daily maintenance burdens associated with the instruments are also costly. This high cost contributes to the fact that most users have only one mass spectrometer among myriad other instruments, if any.

With the introduction of HPMS, the above-mentioned issues are confronted head on, first and foremost with a purchase price cut nearly by a third when compared to luggable or mobile lab instruments. HPMS tools cost as little as $50,000, compared to the portable systems, which cost upward of $150,000. Ongoing maintenance and repair costs associated with HPMS tools are also reduced, with sampling accessories and core operating components offered at an affordable price point. As cost relates to training, HPMS tools only require four to six hours of training, alleviating cost burdens previously associated with months of ongoing training and daily routine maintenance. With more affordable tools, users have the ability to purchase this technology and perhaps even more than one instrument, meaning its use is not limited to one user or hazmat team.

Myth #4: I don’t need it, because I have IMS, Raman, and FTIR tools. Today, responders are equipped with a range of tools and protective gear that they will use at different stages during their mission. All presently fielded technologies are critical to the first responder toolkit, yet each has limitations. A combination of these tools, technologies, and techniques is vital. For example, Raman and FTIR tools are used for bulk material detection. If you can see it, you can try and identify it. Highly selective, these tools can differentiate between 10,000-plus compounds. While beneficial to the mission, these tools require a large sample size to make the measurement and are rarely suitable for looking at low, or trace-level, concentrations. IMS tools, which are commonly used to alert responders early to the presence of potentially harmful chemicals and explosives, notoriously suffer from frequent false positive measurements and are not typically very selective.

Handheld mass spectrometers complement the capabilities of other fielded tools such as IMS, Raman, and FTIR tools by adding focused chemical analysis capabilities to the survey mission. HPMS tools offer trace-level detection and identification in all phases of matter including vapors, thus filling a capability gap where IMS, Raman, and FTIR tools are unable to perform. In the case of IMS, the increased selectivity of HPMS over IMS allows for both a much broader list of target materials and for identification of those threats with a much lower false alarm rate even when background or interferent compounds are present. By adding focused chemical analysis capabilities to the survey mission, first responders have the ability to quickly and safely monitor for seen and unseen targets to discern threats and protect lives.

Until recently, the myths surrounding mass spec have prevented first responders from leveraging the powerful analysis to their advantage in the field. New developments have shattered these myths, providing responders with the speed, power, and accuracy required at the point of need while ultimately dispelling the belief that mass spec instruments are complicated and difficult to use.

JOHN KENNEWEG is vice president, safety & security, for 908 Devices.

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